Social Change and the Crisis in Masculinity
The gender debate has changed radically over the last thirty years. Within the Christian church the core of the debate traditionally focused on whether the roles of men and women should change in church and society. Some still hold to the conservative viewpoint that women should not preach or teach in the church and that the man should have authority over his household. But despite this both church and society have slowly changed.
Macho man, who found his security in sport and beer, has slowly given way to the man who probably drinks wine and proves his masculinity in business rather than on the rugby field. Women have joined the labour force, at first in subordinate roles, but now more confidently, in professional life alongside men. In many churches women and men now minister alongside one another, demonstrating that they have both been given gifts by God that are essential to the life of the church.
With women being just as educated as men and able to do any job just as well as men (and sometimes better), decision-making in the family is now more likely to be a matter of negotiation between husband and wife rather than the man imposing his will on the woman.
We now talk about equality, mutuality and complementarity between men and women and do so following the pattern of the relationship between the man and the woman in Genesis 1 and 2. It is true that issues of power and hierarchy have entered into the relationship between men and women, but this was not God's original intention. They only entered their relationship after the Fall.
It is after the Fall too, that men and women seem to be given different roles, with the woman operating in the private realm of home and family and the man operating in the public world of work. These tendencies have remained throughout history yet they are not fixed. They are areas in which men and women need to share the stewardship of the world as partners, as well as jointly parenting their families.
Feminism saw male patriarchy as fundamentally unjust and called for changes in the way we live. As a result western society, in particular, has changed beyond recognition. Women's rights are now protected by law, and those of us who are parenting daughters welcome the opportunities open to them and the freedom they have to excel in their chosen occupation.
Yet however welcome these changes are, they have brought problems with them which have to be addressed. It is not enough for those who support the advances gained by women to claim a victory and then ignore the unintended consequences of those changes. No social upheaval, however just, brings unequivocal good with it.
First, there are problems in the two-career family when children come along. The issue is how two people who are working full-time in absorbing careers can have a family without the pressure of sustaining two careers damaging the family. Even in a society that gives generous amounts of time for maternity and paternity leave, that pressure still remains.
European figures show that over thirty per cent of women who leave the labour force to have children do not return full-time. They either become part-time workers or do not return at all. For many women the issue is that employment is still structured inflexibly in such a way that it benefits men rather than women.
Of course, many men are more involved in parenting than they have ever been, but the burden of balancing childcare and career still falls on the women's shoulders. The phenomenon named 'the second shift' - where women return from work only to face the additional burdens of household chores - has soured the claims that there is any such animal as a 'new man'.
For many women 'new man' is all mouth. He claims to support women in their careers but retains his power and his job. It is still the man's career that matters most. Few men will give up on that for the sake of their partners.
Secondly, the changes in society have quietly been having an impact on men which has to be resolved if we are to live in a healthy society. Feminists rightly challenged a society in which the male perspective was seen as natural, normal and neutral. In such a world masculinity was invisible to men.
The old saying, 'a fish discovers water last' could not be more true of men living in a society in which their views were dominant. It was only when feminists held up a mirror to men and said 'this is who you are' that men began to see that they had to come to terms with how they were perceived and what they had done to the world they ruled.
There is much to celebrate in masculinity and in the current climate many men feel that the voice of celebration has become muted. After all, haven't men been responsible for some of the greatest achievements of civilisation? Yet men struggle to come to terms with the dark side of masculinity.
If men traditionally found security by cutting away any self-expression that could be construed as feminine or mistaken for homosexual inclination, then they cut themselves off from whole areas of their emotional life and damaged themselves as a result. Whether it was domestic violence, health issues, sexual addictions or workaholism, men have had to come to terms with the need to change their ways, not only so that they might enable women to discover their full potential, but also that they themselves might live healthy and whole lives physically, emotionally and spiritually.
Just as women are having to adjust to the new world and struggle as a result, so too are men. We are living through a crisis in masculinity.
One of the issues that lie at the heart of this crisis is the need that men have always had to find something distinctive on which to base their male identity. Men see women as having more options than they do. A woman can either have children and nurture the family or she can enter the world of work, or she can even juggle the two.
But though fatherhood and family life is important to men, they have traditionally found their identity in the world of work. In a society where women can do everything that men can do, what is the distinctive on which male identity is based? Hard drinking is increasingly unacceptable socially as well as being a health risk. Sport is still important, but many women now share an interest in that.
Men are going through a transition in which there is confusion about their role. The situation is not helped by recent advances in the technology of fertilisation, which seem to reduce men's role in procreation. The traditional male roles of the provider, procreator and protector seem less important than they once were.
We now live in a culture of intimacy in which 'sharing your feelings' is the sign of emotional health. Yet many men find this impossible to cope with. Older men for whom 'putting food on the table' was the sign of a good man are often bewildered by this change in culture.
This is not an argument for women returning to the home to create space for male security in the world of work, though some Christians will argue that point. Rather, it is here that the Christian church can play a vital part by modelling what it means to be a diverse and inclusive community.
The call to love one another, to respect one another and to replace narcissistic ambition with Christ-centred vocation should be revolutionary in such a period of social change. Here is a community where men and women can work out together how to live lives that are emotionally and spiritually whole without losing their sense of identity. Yet all too often we are blinkered about these issues.
We reserve all talk of gender for well-worn arguments rather than seeing that viewing each other as men and women, rather than just people, is essential if we are to uphold a Biblical view of personhood. So church growth experts should be asking, "What is different about the church when one sees it as a church of men and women rather than homogenous people?" Those involved with spirituality should ask, "Do men and women see God in different ways?"
As Genesis declares, we are the same but different; we need to understand what it is that we have in common as people, as well as understanding how we differ as men and women.
The church has a prophetic role in society. Part of that uncomfortable duty is to say that we cannot have it all. If we want material wealth, fulfilling family life, dual-career families, high status, emotional health and spiritual integrity we may find ourselves living with stress. We cannot be whole people on the world's terms.
God calls us to have relationships built on serving others and enabling them to retain their self-respect. At a time when men and women are struggling with social change while being promised the earth, Christian men and women are called to affirm each other's gender.
Christian women are not called to think of men as 'losers' but to affirm the best in masculinity. Christian men are called to genuinely affirm the vocations of women in church and society rather than quietly (or loudly) undermining them.
We are the body of Christ and if that body is dysfunctional then the world will not look at us and say "See how they love one another".